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Real Life: I left school at 11 but I'm now enjoying sweet success

Dudley | News | Published:

Try this," says a beaming Louis Barnett. "It's durian fruit. Quite a stench isn't it? But it tastes great, almost custardy."

He whizzes around and picks another bottle from the heaving shelves.

"This one's cola essence, smells just like it doesn't it? Oh, and this one's gin and tonic."

All in all, around 300 different ingredients line the shelves: 40 types of nut, 20 fruits, more than 30 essence oils.

There's also a whirling, twirling chocolate machine in the centre of it all, not to mention thousands of beautifully-crafted fondants and chocolate bars whichever way you look.

Hard to believe then that we're in a garage in Enville.

"This is where it all happens," says chocolatier extraordinaire Louis. "I come back from my travels with a big book full of inspiration and disappear for a few days in here to work on new recipes. I've tried all sorts – bacon and panchetta, sea salt, black pepper and honeycomb. A grapefruit and hibiscus bar is next on the list."

Louis sells bars of gourmet chocolate in Mexico, America, Spain and the Far East

Decked out in a pair of jeans, designer tee and Crocs, pass Louis on the street and you'd be forgiven for thinking he was just your typical 21 year old.

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But this is a young man who left school aged 11, established his own company at 12 and was supplying Waitrose by the time he was 13.

These days, he rubs shoulders with prime ministers, is just about to buy a shop on San Francisco's famous Market Street and has been asked to become one of only 40 Callebaut Chocolate Ambassadors worldwide.

Oh, and he employs his parents.

"Ha! That's definitely a novelty," chuckles Louis. "But I think, because we've all been doing it so long now, I'm kind of used to it."

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As we speak, Louis's face is on a billboard in Mexico, just one of the many international markets where his brand is booming. In fact, around 85 per cent of his business is now overseas.

It's almost unbelievable that all this started with a 50th birthday cake for his auntie after he left mainstream education following a diagnosis of dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, and short-term memory loss.

"From the moment I went to school, it was always very difficult for me," he recalls. "I always felt as though everyone else 'got it' but I didn't. It was a very frustrating time, I ended up feeling like 'why am I even bothering?'.

"I started seeing a tutor for extra help and after two or three lessons she mentioned the word dyslexia. I went to an educational psychiatrist and was diagnosed and then my parents said 'enough is enough' and I was taken out of school to be taught at home."

It was then that Louis, who attended Brindley Heath Junior and Edgecliff High School, could make the most of his two passions: cooking and animals.

"I immediately started volunteering at Hagley Falconry Centre. I started off doing the basics like cleaning out the birds and ended up doing full shows and publicly speaking in front of crowds of 1,100 people. I was nervous but because I knew so much about it, it all came quite naturally.

"This is also where I learned about the business world. I found out about credit cards, invoices, bank accounts: real world experience they don't teach you about at school."

As well as volunteering at the centre, Louis was constantly in the kitchen – and was finding a particular skill in homemade cakes.

Requests from family and friends followed and it just so happened that a chef at a local restaurant tried one of his wedding cakes.

"He liked it and asked me to supply some desserts for his restaurant. Then he asked for mint fondants to serve with the coffee and that's how the chocolates started.

"They soon were being requested more than the cakes and we started selling them online. They were edible chocolate boxes filled with nine different chocolates.

"Then one day I was in Waitrose in Stourbridge and I realised there was nothing in there that was local so I asked to see the manager and told him what I was doing. He took my details and five days later I got a call from their head buyer asking for a meeting.

"When I walked in they didn't know what was going on. I think they thought 'hang on, why have these people brought their kid along?'.

"They ordered 165 chocolate boxes for six stores, which we thought was the biggest thing ever at the time, and me and my dad drove the stock there in a Peugot 306. I was 13. I was their youngest-ever supplier.

"Then when I was 14, I became Sainsbury's youngest-ever supplier but they wanted 60,000 products in 350 stores. And, of course, Waitrose wanted to compete so they placed another order for 40,000 products in all of their stores."

With business booming, Louis opened his own chocolate factory in Bridgnorth, employing 10 local members of staff. It had to start churning out the chocolate just six days after they moved in, such was demand.

"We moved out to a new base in Burton upon Trent in 2009 because we needed to upscale and because the UK market was starting to suffer in the recession," explains Louis.

"A lot of our UK customers back then were small and independent and they started to go bust at the rate of five or six a week. We started to lose a lot of money and I knew we had to start exporting.

"In 2010, we decided to focus mainly on the bars of chocolate rather than the boxes and we began selling in Mexico, America, Spain, France, Italy and South East Asia – anywhere where food is a passion and a way of life. I also learned quickly that foreigners don't like doing business over emails so I was jetting off around the world.

"The bulk of my business is now overseas. I still sell in Selfridges, Whole Foods and independent delis in this country but Cadbury has the monopoly here in the UK, there's hardly any choice. People just go into the supermarkets and instantly go for a bar of Cadbury for 99p out of habit.

The heart of Louis's chocolate-making operation is in a garage in Enville

"Over here, you might get eight or nine product ranges in the chocolate aisle, overseas there's 30 product ranges. When I was in Mexico, people were taking 10 or 15 of my bars from the shelves at a time, the shopping habits are so different. There's no supermarket own brands or anything like that, they are always looking for something a bit different, something a bit better."

Louis has been working non-stop since the age of 11. As well as his own business (on which he regularly works 16 and 17 hour a day), he works with different governments to promote and inspire the next generation of entrepreneurs, has penned a book on how to survive in business, has signed up for a TV documentary and is a regular public speaker.

But does he have any regrets about missing out on a "normal" childhood?

"I didn't really do the normal things teenagers do," he says. "I didn't go out partying or drinking. But I believe in delayed gratification, when you give up something now for better results later on. And if I had done all those teenager things, I wouldn't be where I am now. I've got no regrets. I love what I do, this is my passion so I enjoy every minute."

The Louis Barnett Chocolatier range has 17 flavours out at the moment, including white chocolate with cola fizz, dark chocolate and chilli, milk chocolate with strawberry and vanilla and a lemon, lime and gin fizz.

"For me, it's all about the flavours and I work really hard on my palate – I don't drink, I don't smoke. I've trained my palate to recognise flavours instantly," he says. "But I don't make these chocolates for myself, I make them for the customers, they are something for them to enjoy.

"My favourite is the sea salt, black pepper and honeycomb but I make all the traditional flavours, mint, orange, etc." Louis was spotted by Callebaut, the world's largest chocolate supplier, when he was 15 and was given full sponsorship for all of his training as a chocolatier.

"It will be life-long training. There is always something new to learn. I'm also really interested in training in other areas such as gelato, ice cream, pastries and bread," he says.

So what's next for Louis?

Well, he's currently moving his UK set-up to another new site in Redditch, where he wants to set up a centre of excellence; is signing on the dotted line for his San Francisco shop; working on a line of merchandise; planning his next trip abroad and is never too far away from his development kitchen.

"It is pretty amazing," he admits. "Sometimes I can't believe all of this has happened. I hope I can inspire people, especially those with things like dyslexia, that anything is possible."

So, what with having his own chocolate kitchen attached to his house and being surrounded by it all day long, does Louis ever get bored of the stuff?

"If only!," he laughs. "Look behind you, do you see there's only two boxes left of those lime fondants? That's because I've eaten them all. Perk of the job, I guess."

Elizabeth Joyce

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